“I don’t have a very sophisticated palate (mmm, donuts) and I gotta think there are some wines that basically taste good to everybody – like, well, donuts. You don’t need a sophisticated palate to like donuts – you just like ‘em…. So how do we find wines that are the equivalent of donuts – beverages with a wide, almost universal appeal and reasonable donut-style pricetags?”
This year’s updated edition of The Wine Trials has 150 wines under $15, all selected by brown-bag blind tastings done by real people, not wine critics. I’m suspicious of full-time wine critics because I can’t shake the hunch that they’re getting paid off by wine companies in order to write favorable reviews. The fact that Parker’s Wine Guide lists two totally different reviews for the same wine didn’t help the cause of pro critics.
If you’re like me – an amateur foodie, by no means a pro – you might think you could reuse the same Wine Trials book for several years in a row. Not so fast: wines change quite a bit from season to season, even blended wines like the ones that often fall into this bargain price category. Out of the 100 wines listed in last year’s Wine Trials, only about half of them showed up in this year’s book – even though the number of wines featured has been raised to 150! Author Robin Goldstein (Blog – @RobinGoldstein) was kind enough to grant me an email interview to answer questions about the book and the business.
Brent: I was really surprised that more than half of 2009’s winners didn’t make the cut in 2010. Before you started the research, did you expect that?
Robin: Actually, knowing how different wines can be from year to year, and given how noisy blind tasting results tend to be under controlled conditions, I was surprised that half of 2009’s winners *did* make the cut. That high (in statistical terms, anyway) correlation indicates to me that our process is consistent and rigorous, and it gives me double the confidence in those 50 or so wines, which is why we’ve marked them with a special “repeat winner” designation on the page.
Brent: Did you do any analysis to measure if the palates of the blind tasters have changed? I’m wondering if our tastes skew over time.
Robin: I haven’t done any experiment to that effect, but I am certain that tastes skew over time. Mine have, for one. In the decade or so that I’ve been writing about food and wine, I’ve seen my palate drift away from concentrated, hyped-up New World wines and toward earthy, minerally, very traditional Old World styles like Burgundy and Rioja. It’s another imperfection in the wine rating process, and another reminder of how important it is for readers and wine lovers to blind taste themselves on a regular basis and learn their own palates—not to trust that any critic is going to be able to predict their preferences perfectly. The Wine Trials can’t either. It’s a mere starting point.
Brent: Thank you for not going with the wacko 100-point scale, and thank you for grouping the wines into styles that make it easy to find other wines I’ll like. Thanks for keepin’ it real. Are you worried that over time, as you get more involved with the industry, that you’ll succumb to making the book more complex? What steps do you take to prevent that?
Robin: No, we don’t ever intend to “get more involved with the industry.” Quite the contrary. This book, like the Fearless Critic restaurant guide series, is meant to be a work of totally independent consumer advocacy, and in my mind, the ad-supported wine mags are the opposite of that. In terms of specific steps to make sure we stay independent, aside from tasting everything blind, we don’t accept advertising (or any payments of any kind, like submission fees) from wine producers; and I don’t pay attention to 100-point wine mag reviews (except when I’m analyzing the industry on an abstract level). The positive feedback we’ve gotten on The Wine Trials indicates that these things really make a difference to readers, so I have no interest in changing our formula, other than to try to review an ever-larger selection of good-value wines.
Brent: The original edition of The Wine Trials included a critique of each bottle’s design. I’m a design freak, but even I found that surprising, because the buyer can judge the design without shelling out the money. Why did you decide to take that angle?
Robin: Well, after spending quite a bit of time proving how much the bottle and label form a big part of your experience of the wine, I thought it would be appropriate to evaluate those elements, too. It’s certainly the most playful part of the wine reviews—and, yes, the buyer can draw his own conclusions—but we’ve gotten feedback that people enjoy reading our design reviews, and we hope, in some small way, to encourage producers to make better-looking bottles, too. The other factor is that more and more people are buying bottles online, and you don’t necessarily get to experience the look and feel directly, so hopefully our design reviews can be useful to readers in those situations, too.
Brent: When you wrote the 2010 book, did you notice any winemakers that tweaked their labels in a way you liked more? I can’t help but wonder, because I bet you’d be so excited if you thought you might have influenced their design!
Robin: I wouldn’t be so immodest as to think that it was because of our book, but Columbia Crest’s redesign was a massive improvement. On the other hand, I think Domaine Ste. Michelle, our #1 sparkling wine in both editions, took a step backward with a frillier and less classy bottle design. Some of the new brands that have come out, like Clean Slate Riesling, I think are moving toward simpler, more elegant design concepts and away from the so-called “critter wine” norms. The Domäne Wachau label is so simple and so beautiful. Just like cheap wine doesn’t have to taste cheap, it doesn’t have to look cheap, either. I think the industry is slowly starting to wake up to this.
Brent: Looking forward to 2011, are there any trends you expect to show up in the next edition?
Robin: We’ll have to leave it to the data to reveal the trends, but I’m seeing an explosion in the number of good under-$15 wines being imported from less famous wine regions like Portugal, in part because of the fact that even with the downturn in the economy, wine drinking hasn’t fallen, but the average amount people spend on a bottle has, and the market has responded. It’s an exciting time to be writing about inexpensive wines.
Here’s one thing I’d wish for: more wines from our neighbors. British Columbia and Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe (in northern Baja California) are both interesting wine areas, and it’s a lot cheaper to import from these NAFTA countries than from Europe—when will we start seeing more wines on the average supermarket shelves from these exciting emerging regions?
I’d also like to see more wines coming from Uruguay, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. All of these regions have good climates, long winemaking traditions, and offer fantastic value. Are any importers out there listening?
I’d like to thank Robin for taking the time to answer my questions, and I’d really like to thank him and coauthor Alexis Herschkowitsch for the book. I recommend it highly, and you can buy it on Amazon for around $10.
The price is a steal – it clued me in to a few wines I never would have tried otherwise. Freixenet is the sparkling wine from Spain that comes in distinctive black bottles, and I always avoided it because the bottle struck me as such a cheesy marketing gimmick. I tried it based on the first edition’s recommendation, and I’ve been buying it ever since. It’s a great everyday sparkling wine, second only to our favorite Francois Montand (which is just really hard to find locally.) Freixenet appeared in this edition too as one of the two-time selections.
Now, about the business of the book. In yesterday’s post about books and marketing, I talked about the work of marketing the book, but that’s only half of the book business. Books can also be used to market other things too. Us geeks think of books as marketing our skills, getting us better consulting gigs or higher rates. Parents think of books as marketing toys and games to kids. In the age of the iPhone, though, think of something else:
If you’re trying to sell an iPhone app about wine, how do you stand out from the dozens (or hundreds) of other developers trying to do the same thing? Why would somebody pick your app out of the list of search results for “wine”?
Simple – change their search results in the first place. Make sure they don’t search for just “wine” and that they search for “wine trials” instead. By having a book, and by putting your app’s name on your book, you send your book buyers straight to the iTunes store to spend more money on you.
Cross-selling apps and books mesmerizes me, and The Wine Trials is an excellent example of an app that I’d buy. I’d pay $5 just to have the contents of the book with me on my phone because I buy wine when I’m out at restaurants, and this book would save me from some bad investments. Right now, I use a task list on RememberTheMilk.com to stash my favorite wines. (I made that task list public so you can see how it works.) I can access RTM from anywhere on my iPhone thanks to their app, and it caches my tasks so it works even when I don’t have signal.
Why does this matter to geek authors? Check out the app store results for SQL Server:
The books are $4-$6, and the certification tests are around $20.
Are they making money? Well, it depends on who you call “they.” The book apps are sold by publishers like Microsoft Press and O’Reilly, and in that case, the original authors make a pretty small percentage of the sale. (I’d tell you the exact amount, but Wiley/WROX don’t have any books on the iPhone.) Of course, if you published your own book, you could make more, but then you’d have to manage the app production process. The Wine Trials is taking this route.
In my next Book Week post, I’ll be interviewing a first-time author who’s already a rock star, and talk about his experiences with the writing and marketing process.